Bringing Flashlights to Africa

Late one Sunday evening in Africa, the light began to dawn on Mark Bent. The Houston-born former Marine was living on the southern shore of the Red Sea, working for the French oil company Perenco in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea. He says he and his housemaid used to visit the local dump on weekends, taking hot meals to the children who lived by scavenging there. One Sunday the kids invited him home to their mud-hut village, and he stayed talking with residents there long after sunset. Apart from little cooking fires, fueled with dried manure and scarce bits of wood, the only illumination in the village came from makeshift kerosene lamps: old cans, with rags for wicks. Later that night, the brightness of his home set Bent to wondering how to bring some light into the villagers' lives—literally.

After sunup the next morning he glanced at his wife's shampoo bottle in the bathroom. The shape made him think of a flashlight. And he got his answer: a solar-powered flashlight. He quit his oil-firm job ("To tell the truth, it was quite boring," he says) and began developing a working model. Having worked two decades in the developing world, he knew that the children from the dump were hardly the only ones sitting in the dark. In fact, at least 1.6 billion people around the world live without electric lights, and that's "a significant underestimation," says one of the top researchers in solar-powered illumination, Evan Mills of the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Bent, who credits Mills for valuable technical advice, says the figure is actually closer to 2 billion. Millions of those people, like Bent's villagers, rely on kerosene—a poor alternative, especially the low-quality stuff that's common in developing countries. It's bad for the environment, even worse for indoor air quality, and every year thousands of Third World children get serious burns from accidents with kerosene lamps.

Bent wants to avoid all those problems. Two years after his flash of inspiration, he's making and distributing the BoGo Light through the company he launched, SunNight Solar Ltd. Water- and shock-resistant, the flashlight's energy-saving light-emitting diodes are powered by nickel-cadmium batteries that provide up to five hours of illumination. They take 10 hours to recharge, using a built-in solar panel. Technically, the BoGo is similar to the solar flashlights available at hardware superstores for $20 or so—with one important difference. Bent's light, sold only via the Internet, comes with a special deal: buy one for $25, plus shipping, and Bent automatically gives one to the relief group of your choice or to U.S. troops in Iraq or Afghanistan. Hence the acronym BoGo: "Buy one, Give one."

The shell of the original BoGo Light was an eye-popping orange. "I wanted something bright that people would be able to find under low light conditions," says Bent. But male villagers kept grabbing the orange ones, forcing the women to do without. Now the lights also come in pink; Bent says men tend to keep their hands off those. That's important: when women go out at night to get firewood or perform other vital tasks, a dependable light can help keep them safe from attackers. Bent says his lights empower women in other ways, too. One evening, visiting a Somali refugee camp in Ethiopia, he sat in on a gathering of "mature women"—wives and mothers. The men were elsewhere, talking business and politics as usual. But the women were using their BoGo Lights to conduct reading classes and educate themselves. Bent calls it "one of the most impressive things I saw."

It's a tough business, though. Mills says Bent isn't the only one trying to figure out how to make the lights affordable for people in developing countries and how to ship them to regions with a low population density. Bent says he has distributed roughly 20,000 BoGo Lights so far from his Houston headquarters, including 7,500 that were bought by ExxonMobil for refugees at U.N. camps in Africa. "Corporate sponsors have been great," he says. The Internet program has sent about 300 to troops in Iraq, earning a personal thank-you note from Gen. David Petraeus. And just last week, Bent says, the United Nations ordered 10,000 of his lights for distribution in Africa and the Middle East.

Still, Bent says his company has yet to reach the break-even point, despite his having sunk $250,000 of his own savings into it. "No one has done this before," he says of his business model. "If I had a pizza parlor and was screwing up, I could walk down the street and ask what's wrong with the sauce. But here, I can't get any guidance from other people." Even so, he's already working on other gadgets. One is a solar-powered charger for mobile phones, which are transforming places like Africa, where landlines remain a rarity. Bent is even more excited about the ultraviolet water purifier he's about to unveil. The device uses sand and coconut-charcoal filters to remove impurities, and sunlight to kill germs. He has a prototype now and is hoping to have it tested soon at the University of Colorado. "It's going to be great," he says. "I've been in touch with the World Bank and some university teachers, and they are all quite enthusiastic." At least he's not bored now. And it beats sitting in the dark.